When I first became a high school principal years ago my superintendent, Anthony Bent, told me: “Daniel, the most important work you are going to do is to hire great teachers.” And when I became a superintendent he advised me: “Daniel, the most important work you are going to do is to hire great leaders.”
He was right on both counts: Personnel is Job # 1. Oh sure, superintendents and school leaders are preoccupied with budget development, curriculum design, school safety (this above all), MCAS, and school culture. But the priority must be recruiting, hiring, supervising, and retaining the most qualified classroom teachers and principals around. It is critical that I spend time seeking the best folks possible to lead our schools and programs.
We might have a well researched, robust, and rigorous science curriculum with all the bells and whistles, but in the hands of a mediocre teacher the curriculum is rendered ineffective. However, a strong teacher who is skilled and intuitive can take a poorly formed or resourced curriculum and create a worthwhile and exciting learning experience for students. In the same way, a thoughtfully developed school safety plan with detailed descriptions of protocols and procedures becomes useless in the hands of a disorganized, unfocused, and careless administrator. But a strong and experienced principal can secure a school and lead students and staff to safety even if the plan is outdated, impractical, or poorly written.
Effective, skillful, and smart school and program leaders make good things happen in schools for kids. A great principal will hire and lead exceptional teachers who will instruct, inspire, and care for children throughout the year. What could be more important?
In Needham, we spend a lot of time (some complain too much time) selecting and interviewing administrative candidates. We involve teachers, community members, parents, administrators, and at the high school level, students to participate on an interview team. After narrowing the field to three or four candidates, we begin reference checking; ask candidates to spend a day visiting our district to meet with staff, parents, and students; and we will then conduct a site visit to the candidate’s school. We will also ask candidates to speak at an evening forum to parents and members of the community. The candidate is asked to complete a writing prompt and provide a portfolio of their best work. Along the way, we ask staff, students, and parents to provide written feedback and input about the candidates. My favorite part of principal interviews is when the candidates are grilled by a panel of students who ask challenging questions, take notes, and immediately following the interview provide very honest and candid feedback.
It’s a grueling and often emotional process for the candidate and time consuming for the administrators, but I believe it’s what we need to do. I think we have been tremendously successful in the last few years bringing aboard talented, mature, and savvy building and program leaders who are doing an exceptional job. It’s a joy to watch them work with teachers and students!
Unfortunately, there are times, despite our best efforts, we may still come up empty-handed. We may learn at a site visit that a candidate is not exactly the person portrayed in his interview or on his resume. Or we may discover that transcripts are incomplete, references weak, or the candidate lacks strong communication skills. One finalist told me recently “It’s clear Needham will expect too much from me, and I won’t be able to deliver.” That candidate bowed out.
I don’t like to break up searches and start over, but I won’t settle for the runner up, a mediocre pick, or the comfortable choice. We will start searches all over again to find the best match for Needham, even if it consumes more time and resources. And time and resources are hard to come by these days.
But nothing else is more important than finding the right teacher for your child and the right principal for your child, her teacher, and the school community.